Pig in a Poke, revisited: Amazon Shenanigans

The first version of this post went up in January 2013. I’m revising and reposting it because Amazon is bungling editions, in a rather deceptive and (to me) infuriating way. The update is followed by the original post.

Amazon has a newish feature I actually like, called Kindle Match. If you bought a hard copy of a book from them in the past — and it can be way, way past, fifteen years ago even, you may be able to get the Kindle edition for anywhere between nothing and ten bucks. Most of the titles seem to be at $2.99 or less. 

So I was looking through this list and I come across the fact that I bought the Norton Critical Edition of Price and Prejudice in 2006. Why I did that is a different question — I can’t remember why I wanted yet another copy. But as you see here  I did indeed buy it in 2006: 

Kindle Match
Kindle Match

A critical edition is the queen of all editions for any book that is considered classic, and the subject of study by academics and scholars. Wikipedia provides a concise description of how critical editions come to be: 

Textual criticism is a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in texts, both manuscripts and printed books. Ancient scribes made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand.[1] Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document’s transcription history.[2] The ultimate objective of the textual critic’s work is the production of a “critical edition” containing a text most closely approximating the original.

Critical editions almost always have additional materials: essays by the editors and/or other scholars, about the book and its history, the author, the time period, and anything else you can think of.  There will also be footnotes to clarify terms that may not be familiar to a current day reader.  Given all this, it probably won’t surprise you that a critical edition costs more than the run-of-the-mill edition.

To clarify what I mean by ‘run-of-the-mill’ edition (or see this post, in which I was totally cranky, but still on target):

Because P&P is long out of print and copyright, anybody can put out a new edition without paying the author or the author’s estate anything. The result is many, many hundreds of editions of P&P put out on cheap paper, with little or no attention to the quality or accuracy of the text, all in the hope of a bit of a profit. You can find new copies of this novel for a buck, and then used copies of that same edition for a penny. 

Do I want the Norton edition as a Kindle book? Need you ask? So I click on the “Get Kindle Edition” button  you see, and this is what comes up:

Not the Norton Critical Edition
Not the Norton Critical Edition

Here is what the page for the critical edition actually looks like:

This is the real Norton Critical Edition
This is the real Norton Critical Edition


You see that the critical edition has an editor (Donald J. Gray) and also that I bought it in 2006. But what I was offered as a part of Kindle Match was a crappy movie-tie in edition, one I never bought in soft cover. 

To take this one step further (because it gets worse), if I click on the “Kindle Edition” tab on the Norton edition page, this is what I get:

Still not the critical edition
Still not the critical edition

Note that this was not published by Norton, but by “Top Five Classics” — one of the many companies that specialize in run-of-the-mill cheap editions.  At this point it occurs to me that there may not  even be a Kindle version of the Norton Critical Edition, so I pop over to the Norton website and have a look at the P&P page. And in fact, it’s only put out in trade paper format.  (Click on the link if you want to see what all goes into a critical edition.) 

In a nutshell: if I pay for the critical edition, I want it. I want it for all the reasons touched on above.  If another reader doesn’t care about the edition, s/he won’t even notice the switch. But people should care, because the practice is (a) deceptive and (b) wasteful. I hate to think of all the paper that has gone into crappy editions of this particular novel, one of many.  My guess is that you could repeat this process I’m showing you for everything from Gulliver’s Travels to A Room with a View.

Here’s the question: Is Amazon just tremendously sloppy and unwilling to pay attention to something as simple as an ISBN, or is this a way to lure in less-than-attentive buyers?  

One of the first things you learn in graduate school is to never walk into a seminar where a particular novel is going to be discussed  holding a movie-tie in edition rather than the critical edition. You will not be treated kindly. Also, it’s disrespectful to the editors who put in years of work to make sure the edition is as authentic and error free as possible.

So I’m done venting. I doubt anybody at Amazon will pay attention to my squeaking, but I’m going to keep an eye on this. 

January 2013 Post:

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.
Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite.

nortoncreditcalppBefore Amazon  if you wanted a specific P&P edition (say, with illustrations by a particular artist, or edited by a particular Austen specialist) you could usually track it down, sometimes easily and sometimes not so. In the present day finding and buying books is infinitely easier, but distinguishing one edition from another is far harder, and sometimes almost impossible.

Consider a few of the numerous editions of P&P. The one on the left is the Norton Critical edition that’s currently in print, which is most likely the edition you would  be asked to read in a serious advanced literature course. They used the original 1813 edition for the text, and it includes biographies of Austen by members of her family and specialists, as well as Austen’s letters, samples of her early writing, and tons of other bits and pieces.  Note there’s another Norton Critical edition with a lovely teal cover, which happens to be out of print — but even if you found it for two bucks on a sale table, you’d be buying something different than the edition above. But how could you know that? Aside from comparing them side by side (books in hand), you’d be hard pressed to figure it out.

If this isn’t complicated enough, consider the Cambridge University Press edition, below. Note the following things: the name of the editor, the ISBN number, the fact that it is 622 pages long (the Norton Critical edition is 423 pages) and the whopping big price tag. The description doesn’t go into as much detail as the Norton edition. So which one is better, truer to the original, with better notes and annotations and essays? The page count and the price tag on the Cambridge edition might influence you. Your Aunt Ruth’s birthday is coming up. She is a Janite of the first order and she would want everything there is to know, so you spring for the expensive version.

CUP Edition
CUP Edition

Or you try to. Because this is where the real problems start, when you toddle off to Amazon to find a copy of the expensive CUP edition. It comes up without a hitch (as seen here), same cover, same title, same editor. And look at the huge discount…. even better, on Amazon Marketplace there are other copies for sale, for less than twenty bucks, even.

Remember that old chestnut about things too good to be true?

pricesHave a closer look at the pricing information.  What should jump out at you is that there’s a kindle edition. Really? A kindle edition of the 600+ page Cambridge University Press version, for less than a dollar?

The confusion stems from Amazon’s misleading layout. They show you prices not just for the CUP edition,  but for all editions.  The Norton editions, Penguin, and every crappy edition ever put out by Barnes & Noble (Get five classic novels for ten bucks!). You don’t realize this, and money is money, and who are you to turn down a deal? You order a copy that’s priced at $25 and sit back to wait.

Now, if you took the time to follow the links you’d see that what you just ordered is not the CUP edition you wanted. But probably you didn’t take the time — why would you? So when the package comes you are not going to be happy. I would like to tell you that the bad news ends here, but there’s another wrinkle, one you wouldn’t find out about it until too late — unless you read through the reviews before you ordered.

A very kind reviewer (who calls him/herself Kiwi) went to the trouble to explain why you have to be careful ordering this book, even if you order the full priced version from up top. You can read the whole review here, but here’s the abbreviated version:

Check the Publisher carefully before you place your order because….,

One of the versions listed is published by “General Books LLC.” Another reader complained about the tiny and almost unreadable font – you probably bought the version published by General Books LLC – and here’s the reason.General Books LLC is an imprint of VDM Publishing, (google them and take a look at the Wikipedia article on them) and they specialise in publishing books that are free of copyright without doing any editing or quality control. […]

So what you’re getting if you buy the version published by General Books LLC is a scanned in, unedited, low quality […] unindexed / No table of contents book at a higher price than many of the good quality imprints available. Basically, VDM Publishing is flooding Amazon with these low quality prints (450,000 of them are listed now) publisher.

and, unfortunately, many of them have the reviews associated with better quality imprints associated with them. The product description is insufficient for the buyer that’s not aware of thisTotally unethical marketing.

‘Buyer beware’ doesn’t really say it strongly enough.

There are book sites that do an excellent job of distinguishing between editions. LibraryThing really works hard on this, but they don’t sell books; and they aren’t worried about a profit. They are concerned with compiling the best, most complete information, book by book, for people who care a lot about books.

Where do ebooks fit into this whole picture? I’ll tackle that question sometime soon.

I’ve been working on this post on and off for a long time, and finally decided to post it today. I finished the corporate taxes, and this is my reward. Really. It’s the INTJ in me, I can’t help it.


4 Replies to “Pig in a Poke, revisited: Amazon Shenanigans”

  1. “Here’s the question: Is Amazon just tremendously sloppy and unwilling to pay attention to something as simple as an ISBN, or is this a way to lure in less-than-attentive buyers? ”

    I think you answered your own question because yes, Amazon is basically interested in the bottom line and has little to no interest in something like ISBN numbers. As in most things in life – it’s “buyer beware”.

    I love critical editions or even books with extensive forewards by someone who has the credentials to speak on the subject at hand.

  2. I wonder how widely known this is. Is there any way to find out besides a general search on Amazon ISBN complaints?

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